Sharon Horgan (49) grew up on a turkey farm in Meath and moved to London in her early twenties in pursuit of an acting career. She worked in a job centre in Kilburn before recording sketches for a BBC radio pilot. Breakthrough success came when she wrote and starred in the BBC sitcom Pulling, after which she wrote Divorce for Sarah Jessica Parker. She married an English property developer and lives with her daughters, Sadhbh and Amer, in a designer house in Hackney, where in fact she was born to a Kildare mother and Irish-New Zealand father. Niamh Algar (27) left her Mullingar home in 2017, headed to London and landed a starring role in the Channel 4 miniseries The Virtues. She will better that with the English director Ridley Scott’s big-budget series, Raised by Wolves. Algar is now house-hunting in London. Paul Mescal (24) from Maynooth is not at the house-hunting stage quite yet, having moved to London just before the coronavirus lockdown to star in BBC’s Normal People. Horgan, Algar and Mescal, of course, are only the most recent aspiring movie and television performers trooping to London from the South of Ireland, in the footsteps of Kate Binchy, Donal Donnelly, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole (born either in Connemara or Leeds), Eddie Byrne, Cyril Cusack, Fiona Shaw CBE, Sinéad Cusack, and others too numerous over the decades to enumerate. Byrne was a congenial presence in British movies in my youth and whereas the usual sites have him born in Dublin in 1911, his birthplace on PeoplePill.com is given as Birmingham, with his upbringing in the Irish capital. That the disparity between birth nations seems otiose, as in the cases of Horgan and O’Toole, is telling.
The curve of actors’ visibility goes north or south, but a select few entertainers become celebrities, which means they settle in with the showbusiness equivalent of a professorial chair and become national identities, in the Australian sense of the word. I grew up in the ubiquitous sunny presence of Eamonn Andrews CBE because our family in Belfast got a TV as early as 1953. He was born in Synge Street Dublin, educated by the Christian Brothers at Synge Street School, and was a sports commentator for Radio Éireann before graduating to the BBC in London. His most famous role was as compere of the evergreen This is Your Life. Andrews was succeeded as a cheering fixture in the British consciousness by Terry Wogan ‑ (Sir) Terence Wogan KBE, DL (deputy lieutenant, a crown appointment), son of a Limerick store manager. Now it is Graham Norton from Bandon, the third Irish star in the BBC firmament over the past continuous sixty years, subject of a 2013 Daily Telegraph profile, “The making of a national treasure”, the nation in question being the UK. Meanwhile, Robert “Sir Bob” Geldof KBE and freeman of the City of London, born and raised in Dún Laoghaire, is a kind of roving celebrity campaigner who lives in Battersea but is too divisive to be a national treasure. He can affix KBE to his name but cannot call himself Sir Robert because the Republic of Ireland is not in the Commonwealth; but others call him Sir Bob anyway, no doubt because they know that Ireland does not need to be in the Commonwealth in order to be in the British Isles, that Sir Bob is one of them, even when ornery.
What does Irish talent’s homing instinct, which locks onto London like a heat-seeking missile, tell us? Well, at least this: the extraordinary performative genius of the Irish, like all such genius if it is also ambitious, needs a metropolis in which to take wing. London (not Paris or Berlin) is the metropolis of Ireland. And London, metropolis or not, is in England.
It could not be more timely or of more consequence to think about the implications of what appears to be a mere entertainment truism: “All the world’s a stage.” For warm British-Irish social and professional relations are, and have been for a century, bracketed off on all apolitical levels by Irish politicians, commentators and partisans alike, which then allows British-Irish relations to be translated into political currency as chronically and inherently inimical. So we are in dire need of a candid exposure of those relations, with subsequent recommendations on how to import empirical reality into Irish official and unofficial attitudes alike and to translate that reality into sea-changes of mindset as well as changes of policy. I believe that the peace of Ireland, the capacity to reconcile the peoples of the archipelago (and then, and only then, the people of Ireland itself), depend upon it.
I had hopes that a new British Council (Belfast) book, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, would offer at least an opening gambit. My spirits stirred when I saw that the introduction was written by Sir Ciarán Devane, and rose when I Googled him, for in my opinion the future peace of these islands lies in such hands as his ‑ that is, if he and his like are prepared to speak out, loudly and unequivocally. He was born in Dublin and graduated from UCD. He was CEO of Macmillan Cancer Support before becoming CEO of the British Council while serving as the non-executive director of NHS England; The Irish minister for health, Simon Harris, announced in 2018 that Devane was the first chair of the Irish Health services (IHS); the British knighted him in 2015 for his services to cancer services. I hail such careers, with the geo-cultural, geo-political attitudes to Irish-British relations they imply, as signposts to a possible happier future.
Unfortunately, in the book itself the Northern Ireland side of things muddies the issue of the lives entwined by the Britain-Ireland relationship, as it did during Brexit. Most of the contributions attack the “toxic binaries” of unionism and nationalism and advocate diversity inside Northern Ireland. The preferred identities are signalled by the recurring keywords and categories: LGBT, women (heterosexual, lesbian), trans, disability, mixed race, mental health services, abortion rights, Green Party, diversity, youth. This is stirring stuff; it is good if the old moulds are being broken (to borrow John Montague from the 1970s), though the old moulds in question seem oddly to be exclusive to Northern Ireland. However, the applauded “shifting borders, shifting identity” leave untouched Britain and Ireland, and the lives that entwine those two countries. To a Martian it would seem a no-brainer to concentrate on Northern Ireland when talking about the Britain-Ireland problem. Isn’t the North the chief source of contention between Britain and Ireland? In fact, the answer to that question is a resounding No. Northern Ireland is the veronica that distracts the bull from his real problem. The source of contention is the Britain-Ireland relationship itself, the entwined lives of which have no outlets yet for personal expression (or at any rate, outlets which are availed of) and certainly no current outlets for collective expression that could assume even quasi-political form. The problem would rankle even if the Northern Irish disappeared, though of course the latter have their own dialect version of the same unsolved problem. Edna Longley’s eloquent notion of Northern Ireland as a corridor between Ireland and Britain once seemed hopeful, but Southerners prefer direct traffic with the British mainland and have no interest in the North as a detour, bridge or go-between.
Most of the contributors to this book, then, ignore the set theme. Pádraig Ó Tuama, the poet and theologian, does accept the challenge as he sees it: “British-Irish relations ‑ or, to be more accurate, Anglo-Irish relations, because it’s mostly with England that our beef is.” (In a personal communication he kindly confirmed that the beef in question was Brexit; certainly other beefs in 2020 don’t jump to mind.) Yet he admits the challenge defeats him because “One of the terrible things about British-Irish relations is that we have no shared story of the past, and this makes it terribly difficult to describe the present. We accompany him in his alternative way of meeting the challenge: writing an allegorical poem whose protagonists are two Living Pilgrims (England and Ireland). It ends: “They turned to face / their destiny – / each other . . . They turned to face / each other face /each / other.” This is an anguished and brave performance of the inextricability of England and Ireland. Indeed, I would suggest that even if there is no story shared by England and Ireland, what is nevertheless shared has all the necessary ingredients of an even bigger and better story than I ever hear; it is copious and, if acknowledged without rancour, could even be bountiful ‑ indeed emancipating.
The only other contribution undistracted by the matador’s cape is Diarmaid Ferriter’s “The Weight of Anglo-Irish History ‑ Much More than an External Affair”. This is unsurprising, not just because he is a professional scholar and knows what the set theme is, but also because, as he says: “Over the last 30 years I have spent more time in London than Belfast and that is not unusual for my peers.” Indeed it isn’t. Ferriter introduces us to an acronym for the Irish of his generation who live across the water: NIPPLE (new Irish professional people living in England). They are the latest instalment of a very old sequence but more likely than their immediate predecessors to share the culture of their host society. Some of Ferriter’s historical statistics are startling. By 1830, Irish soldiers “were estimated to represent 42.2 per cent of the regular British Army . . . By 1878 a fifth of all British Army officers were Irish. More than 200,000 Irishmen fought in the First World War and were volunteers rather than conscripts . . . at least 60,000 Southern Irish citizens served [in the Second World War] . . . Joining the British Army was a family tradition for many, and was not seen by them as either pro-British or anti-Irish.” That became “an inconvenient truth”, says Ferriter with some understatement. In the twentieth century, he tells us, “1.6 million Irish left for Britain, more than twice as many as went to North America”. Roy Foster reminds us in Paddy and Mr Punch (1993) that the Irish-born population in Britain in 1861 was 805,000; the combined first-generation and their immigrant parents would have boosted the figure to several million. By 2001, the Irish-born population was 850,000; after all, by the late 1950s, nearly 60,000 Irish were arriving in Great Britain annually. (These last figures courtesy of Maurice Sweeney’s moving 2009 documentary set in Birmingham, The Forgotten Irish.)
Obviously many of the descendants of the three million Irish who have emigrated to Britain since 1600 (Ferriter’s figure), have simply dissolved into the mainstream of British society, helping to feed and propel that stream while, in many cases, keeping proudly alive at some level of acknowledgement their Irish ancestry. As we know from David Fitzpatrick’s essential study, “A Curious Middle Place: the Irish in Britain, 1871-1921” (in The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939), by the turn of the twentieth century many Irish had escaped the Irishtowns of Liverpool, Manchester and other British cities and were moving to the suburbs; they also lived in Stafford, Stockport, Winchester, York, Dundee, Newcastle, Hull, Bristol and other smaller British towns and cities.
The alienation from British culture that first characterised Irish life in Britain accordingly diminished. Foster reminds us of the nineteenth century Irish “who saw much of their focus and most of their career opportunity as lying across St George’s Channel. But for many of the Victorian Irish middle class, life was spent travelling back and forth across the Irish Sea, observing and participating in British forms of Government, reading English books, attending British educational institutions, looking for employment within the structures of the British Empire and speaking English.” He refers to those Irish “who went to England and made a good thing out of it”; but we don’t need to trumpet the success stories he tells: a reminder of the Irish educated middle class presence in England is sufficiently novel, and the fact sufficiently unappetising ideologically to many Irish historians, politicians and journalists. But of course, high-profile success stories pack a greater punch than common or garden success stories, and both kinds can help to counterbalance the prevailing lazy image to this day of the Irish in England ‑ exiled, unhappy, discriminated against, nostalgic for the old sod. During the research for my study Irish Novels, 1880-1940 (2008), I was astonished to recover from obscurity so many popular Irish novelists, mostly women and middle class, Catholic and Protestant, who lived in England and set their fiction in either of the two islands, who frequently rode the Irish mail train to and from Euston station and sailed in the Holyhead ferry (or who travelled the empire) and who wrote in blithe disregard for the Hibernocentric literary stipulations of the Revival culture-givers. They could be disapproved of ideologically, of course, but there they were, unembittered and ethnically more Irish than Pearse, Childers, Gonne or de Valera.
Fitzpatrick reminds us that Irishmen were indeed overrepresented among casual and seasonal workers, dock labourers and coal heavers, and Irishwomen in domestic service: “In England, Paddy (and doubtless Biddy) remained proletarian.” And they remained so into the 1950s. To balance the longstanding discrimination that these particular Irish suffered, Ferriter reminds us of the inimitable opportunities England offered to those who could find no work in Ireland. England was Ireland’s missing construction site. “Oh mother dear, I’m over here,” sings the narrator of “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”, “I never will come back.” The song tells of what lightens the navvies’ nights and induces them to throw their suitcases way: “What keeps me here? / The rake of beer, / The ladies and the crack.” But the image persisted of an oppressed workforce amid an alien host population. The Forgotten Irish reveals how immigrant Irish workers were in fact often exploited by their compatriots who had become contractors in England. And in the song it is the Irish gaffer, The Horseface Toole, who when The Bear O’Shea is killed on site callously retorts “I’m a navvy short.” Besides, the navvies weren’t press-ganged and trafficked to England. If they were forced to emigrate to Great Britain from Ireland, by whom were they forced? In the cases of the Birmingham Irish that Sweeney profiles in The Forgotten Irish, it was to escape hardship, cruelty and sexual abuse in the industrial schools that they absconded to Britain. This was a traumatising experience for some and some suffered homesickness and, in their inner-city loneliness, alcoholism; theirs can be heartbreaking stories. Thirty-five to forty per cent of the boys who survived institutions in Ireland decamped to Britain, Sweeney tells us. Yet many rooted themselves in England. We accompany one of his survivors on his return to Baltimore, Co Cork after decades away. “I’m patriotic,” he says, “I love Ireland. But I’m going back to Birmingham. I’m going home.”
Subtending this false notion of chronic exploitation of all the Irish in Britain was the claim of the essential difference between Britain and Ireland as well as an unjust imbalance between oppressor and oppressed. The cultural difference had to be true and deep if it were to justify the separatist agenda of the early twentieth century. That agenda, Foster claims, was subscribed to less by Irish living in England than by those radicals who were actually English such as Maud Gonne, Erskine Childers, Aodh de Blácam (Hugh Blackham), Charlotte Despard. We learn from Fitzpatrick that in the later nineteenth century, “Nationalist organizers struggled hard to involve immigrants in the concerns of Ireland and her politics . . . Most immigrants avoided all Irish organizations.” They were clearly too busy getting on with their lives, though there was later involvement in the Home Rule movement and, as we know from Yeats, an expatriate enthusiasm for Irish drama and literature in Southwark and elsewhere that fed into the incipient cultural revival. But the image that came to prominence was of an Irish population in England in half-voluntary bondage, whose tribulations (“No blacks, no Irish”) helped to justify the cause of complete separation of the two countries, culturally as well as politically.
Two sides to the story of the Irish in Britain were indirectly revealed in the Forgotten Irish campaign that was launched in London in 2007 by President Mary McAleese. It was spearheaded by Peter Sutherland, a businessman and lawyer born in Foxrock (of Scots ancestry) and who rose to be attorney general of Ireland, chairman of Allied Irish Banks and special UN representative for international migration. Queen Elizabeth made him an honorary knight commander. He lived in London but at the end returned to Dublin, where he died. The campaign was to raise funds and awareness of the elderly Irish in Great Britain who had left Ireland from the 1950s. The campaign manifesto (available online) said they “paved the way for more recent generations of Irish immigrants to Britain ‑ for people like us”. So the thousands of successful Irish professionals in Britain were asked to help those working class predecessors who had not fared so well. Ironically, the Irish in Britain, especially if successful, have been less understandably, sometimes wilfully, forgotten by those Irish still at home, and where a political party that nourishes itself, and starves others, on its anti-Britishness, is sadly highly popular.
In order to achieve even Home Rule, it was, of course, necessary to promote difference between Ireland and Britain, not similarity or shared experience, and this is understandable. After all, one inescapable difference was in the fact that the citizens of one country did not unanimously accept rule by the other country, to put it mildly. But whereas Home Rule would have allowed the Irish in Britain to maintain without reproof their British Isles existence, the republican campaign that climaxed in the Easter rebellion necessarily called that existence into question. After 1922, many Irish in Britain must have felt cut adrift. Those in Ireland who wished to join their compatriots across the water, or were judged to be too British in behaviour or belief, were now West Britons or shoneens and the insult was extended to those Irish in Britain who drew attention to themselves. Were Shaw and Wilde even Irish writers, really? When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s in Belfast, the answer was still No. The Irish in Britain became an unspoken-of population, unless they were McAlpine’s Fusiliers or equivalent “victims”. Unspoken of, and unspeaking, by and large. The Provisional IRA campaign of the 1970s and 1980s was conducted in England not on behalf of, but despite, the majority of the Irish who lived there.
Yet if we recruit Ferriter’s experience, along with the facts of the present-day Irish in Britain, the idea of deep separation is patently absurd. But what is the best cultural and policy-form by which the reality of the British-Irish connection can be expressed? No extant policy, political initiative, or major cultural organisation supplies the need. It is a hard question because we are dealing with a network, a web, not alas (or yet) a potential coherent lobby in Britain either of the Irish-born or the British-born Irish; nor is there advocacy back in Ireland. But answers are necessary if we are finally to lay the by-now sorry and reiterative quarrel to rest.
A recurring figure in Ferriter’s essay is Kevin Maher, whom the scholar would visit in London where Maher lived, and for a time in Camden like many Irish. They shared “a deep-rooted republicanism with a fascination with the activities of the House of Windsor”. Ferriter was best man when Maher married a Kensington woman from a Tory family. As it happens, I got my information about the actress Niamh Algar chiefly from an interview with her in the London Times of February 29th, 2020 by Kevin Maher . Maher is from Dublin but left for London in 1994 when he was twenty-two to find success as a journalist. He did so, for he is now film critic of the Times and has worked as a researcher for Channel 4’s Film Night. Two novels of his have been published by a London house. He lives in Hertfordshire. His kids, he says, are half Irish/half English “so I’m really suspicious of nationalism” ‑ in other words, of any attempt to impose an Ireland-Britain binary; he is one of the few Irish in England apparently willing to question on the record, even indirectly, the raison d’être of Irish republicanism.
In turn, I got my information about Maher chiefly from an April 2013 interview with him in The Spectator (a mouthpiece for England par excellence, one might think) by JP O’Malley, a resourceful freelance journalist from Dublin who left for London in 2009 and has also written for The Economist and The Daily Beast. Despite the English destinations of his journalism, O’Malley does not appear to share Maher’s suspicion of nationalism and regards life in London as responsible for silencing the Irish national narrative; writing about the Irish in London has given him a greater sense of himself as Irish, he says. (“Culture can provide home away from home for Irish in London”, Irish Times, November 14th, 2014.) But none of this negates the fact of O’Malley’s living in the capital of England. One can feel, or adopt, the identity of an expatriate in England while daily living the life of an inhabitant, inside or outside the loose company of tens of thousands of one’s compatriots. It’s a different way of being Irish in Britain. Yet another way, made possible by shuttle flights and encouraged in the beginning, no doubt, by the UK’s EU membership, is to be part of what airport staff call “the Monday-morning mob” of Irish commuter-migrant professionals whose work week is spent in a British city and whose weekends are back in Ireland.
And how you live as Irish in Britain is now up to you, as the experience of the actress Siobhán McSweeney of Derry Girls suggests. After she graduated from University College Cork, she told the Sunday Times (Dublin) of May 3rd, 2020, she enrolled in the Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 2001. What is crucial to remember is how natural those footsteps are that lead from Ireland to Britain. When she moved from Brockley to Kilburn (“County Kilburn, they call it, because there are so many Irish there”), having come from Celtic Tiger Ireland, “I wasn’t that keen on bacon and cabbage; and I didn’t have the immigrant mindset, because, in my head, I wasn’t one: I was just over in London. The idea I had moved from home hadn’t occurred to me.” She was just a migrant, not an immigrant from another land. The accidental geography once she was in a certain London neighbourhood meant she chose to embrace the ideas of diaspora, enclave and home away from home, where if you are a professional you describe yourself as “based in London” rather than “living and making my livelihood and career in London”, which you are. Now, she says, “I’m a fully paid-up member of the immigrant community: I break down and weep in the supermarket at the sight of Tayto crisps and Kimberley and Mikado biscuits.” But with her wit, self-awareness, talent and success, McSweeney is unlikely to join the forgotten Irish. There is role-playing here, surely, for she is clearly a NIPPLE, a new Irish professional person living in England.
There are of course other high-profile Irish journalists and commentators living in England besides Maher and O’Malley, including Mary Kenny from Dublin, Melanie McDonagh from Wicklow and Laura Perrins, a law graduate from UCD and co-editor of Conservative Woman. Besides being a journalist, Kevin Maher is a novelist, only one of the Irish writers happily living in England, including Ruth Dudley Edwards, Jean Casey, Edna O’Brien, Martina Evans, Declan Ryan and their myriad illustrious predecessors since the Revival, including George Moore, Sean O’Casey, AE and WB Yeats. (Other Irish writers, such as Marian Keyes from Limerick, spent their creatively formative years in London, where Keyes married an Englishman.) Indeed, so many Irish writers are there in the Big Smoke that Tony Murray, a first-generation London-Irishman who teaches at London Metropolitan University, started the Irish Writers in London summer school in 1996. Murray catches first- and second-generation London-Irish writers in his net, and they could include, of course, John Walsh, Martin McDonagh and Brendan O’Neill (and before them, JG Farrell). In an Oldie column, Mary Kenny defended O’Brien (who has been a Londoner for many decades) from Irish attack for accepting her Dame of the Order of the British Empire honour in 2018, on the grounds that the Irish were active imperialists too and the empire had been good for the Catholic Irish.
That Southern Irish professionals are punching above their demographic weight is clear when you ponder their number in front of the cameras and behind the microphones of the British Broadcasting Corporation, over and above Graham Norton: Des Lynam OBE and his nephew Joe Lynam, Dara O’Briain, Fergal Keane, the impressive ex-convent schoolgirl Orla Guerin MBE, Al Ryan, Angela Scanlon, Declan Harvey, Dermot O’Leary. (O’Leary is actually first-generation English, having been born in Colchester to where his parents migrated from Ireland; he holds dual British and Irish citizenship and is described in his Wikipedia entry as a “British-Irish” presenter; he is “extremely proud” of his Irish roots, and one hopes that he is proud, too, of his English upbringing, though that goes unsaid; Terry Wogan was an early model for O’Leary.) There must be dozens of Irish away from the cameras and microphones, producing, directing, scripting, research-assisting. They work at the heart of British culture and help pump the blood of that culture. As do the countless Irish teachers and researchers in the British academy, from colleges and redbricks to Oxbridge itself, summited by such eminences in the humanities as professors Roy Foster FRSL, FBA from Waterford (Hertford College, Oxford), Eamonn Duffy FBA, a “cradle Catholic” (his description) from Dundalk (former president of Magdalene College, Cambridge) and Bernard O’Donoghue FRSL from Co Cork (Wadham College, Oxford). The other professions are just as enriched by Irish expertise. Professor Adrian Hill FRCP from Dublin is director of the Jenner Institute, University of Oxford. Aoife Abbey (36) from Dublin is an IC unit doctor at University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire for whom we can predict a luminous future not only as a doctor but as a writer, author as she is of Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor (2019); she has an autobiographical piece in the Times magazine of May 1st, 2020 in which her Irishness goes unmentioned. A different kind of professional is the London chef and author Richard Corrigan, born and raised in Ballivor, Co Meath, multiple winner of the Great British Menu, and restaurateur, with his Mayfair, Bentley’s Sea Grill in Harrods, Daffodil Mulligan in Islington, and for good measure Virginia Park Lodge in Co Cavan. He may think London is led by “a load of donkeys” and the UK by “a bunch of monkeys” (see his Wikipedia entry), but there he is, happily plying his superb trade in London for decades, too well embedded, I would suggest, for his insults to be anti-British rather than the grievances of an exasperated businessman finding his government boneheaded.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Irish contribution to sport in Britain, including, obviously, football and horse-racing, both sports in which there is a constant, intimate and age-old exchange of talent and management skills, to the extent, in the case of horse-racing, that the movement of thoroughbred horseflesh blithely occurs outside the rules of the EU, that bureaucracy that has caused such friction between the two countries during Brexit. Horse-racing is such a mutual Anglo-Irish sport and business that not even the EU can drive that border down the Irish Sea, and nobody in Ireland would dream of doing so. During Brexit negotiations, one Irish Times headline ran: “Brexit could decimate Ireland’s horse racing industry”, but of course it won’t: bloodstock is thicker than water.
All my names are but tips of an iceberg. The critical mass of Irish presence, talent and even brilliance in Britain makes Anglophobia seem puny and strident. And self-harming: real or affected, it shrinks the compass of Irish cultural experience and possibility, and certainly its healthy expression. In the New York St Patrick’s Day parade in 2019 Mary Lou McDonald helped hold up a large banner reading ENGLAND GET OUT OF IRELAND. Did anyone draw her attention to the tragicomic irony?
A book could, of course, be written (and should be) on the complementary reality: the notable historical and ongoing infusion in Ireland of British culture, high, low and middlebrow, via television, radio, cinema, the Internet, newspapers and journals. (In 2016, 277,200 people born in the UK ‑ a fair-sized “city” ‑ were living in Ireland: Office for National Statistics [UK], 2017.) The mutuality of popular culture on both islands is a given (as I write, Normal People, the BBC TV series from the Irish novel, gets rave reviews and is shown on RTÉ) and doesn’t endanger Irish culture’s sense of itself; only through Sinn Féin’s narrowed eyes would we see this enriching two-way traffic as the undesirable interpenetration of alien cultures. Once indeed that was a widespread Irish feeling, a holdover from de Valera’s Ireland ‑ mingled guilt, pleasure and envy aroused by engaging with the everyday doings of the Brits. The Ulster poet James Simmons penned a mischievous couplet back in the Seventies: “Why are TV aerials in Dublin so high? / To eavesdrop on England, that’s why.” By official default, Ireland is still a kind of eavesdropping society, though all it has to do is declare that eavesdropping is not required, that Britain and Ireland indeed culturally interpenetrate and by doing so add to the gaiety of both nations and to neither country’s diminishment.
A weekly reminder of this healthy mutuality (healthier when acknowledged) is on the Irish newsstands each Sunday. The Dublin edition of the London Sunday Times rivals that of The Irish Times in Southern circulation ‑ 68,500 for the former to 79,000 for the latter (but only 56,500 for the print edition). The Dublin Sunday Times is also sold north of the border in spite of Northern Ireland’s being in the UK and therefore eligible to receive the London or Scotland edition; but then, since the columnists and reporters who write for the Dublin edition are both British and Irish, the border between the Republic and Great Britain is equally ignored. Half of the features of the main section of the latest issue at the time of writing are over the names of Ireland-based Sunday Times Irish staff writers, while the other half are written by such well-known British figures as Jeremy Clarkson, Wayne Rooney, Niall Ferguson and Peter Conradi. Half of the newspaper’s Culture magazine is written by such Britons as Bryan Appleyard, Jonathan Dean, Max Hastings and John Arlidge. The colour magazine looks as if it is simply the untouched London edition with thirteen of the fourteen writers British (the othe, European) and a four-page feature on VE Day. In other words, the targeted readership of the Sunday Times (Dublin) is all the Irish of the island with a keen investment of interest in what is happening on both sides of the narrow water.
One of the more enlightened of the campaigners to sever Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom in order to create a constitutionally unified island is Irish High Court judge Richard Humphreys, author of Beyond the Border: The Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity After Brexit (2018). May I say that in his book he has courteously given me a good deal of elbow room through quotations from my pro-Union articles. Mr Justice Humphreys has written with generosity about unionist sensitivities and believes that a unified Ireland would work only if the British identity of the unionists were sincerely factored in and protected. And that would be helped along, he believes, if Southern Ireland acknowledged the British dimension to its own experience.
But surely Southern Ireland, for the sake of its own social health and fidelity to history ‑ and to current reality ‑ would want to acknowledge that dimension with or without Northern Ireland, and moreover should have done so years ago? Mr Justice Humphreys’s unavoidable implication is that this dimension has been repressed, and I believe it has. There has been a massive disconnect between the story politicians and historians tell of the relationship between England and Ireland (usually told in purely political terms and without Scotland and Wales) and the untold truth of cultural history and social reality. The well-intentioned remarks during certain ceremonial occasions about kinship between the two peoples fall far short of the daily experiences of Irish people on both sides of the Irish Sea. So three short paragraphs on that dimension in a 280-page book suggests to me that even this generous author’s heart is not in it. The outrageous idea is left unexamined that in a kind of culture reassignment therapy, the Britishness of unionists can be somehow extracted from the UK and grafted on to a united Ireland and “accommodated” therein, while Ireland gaily enjoys its unfettered access to the UK, quietly and officially ignores its own striking British dimension and asserts instead its ethnic uniqueness. The primacy of Irish ethnic identity ‑ which the campaign for a united Ireland is predicated on ‑ is fine if you wish to ignore the multiculturalism of which Ireland is otherwise seemingly proud, the daily shared experiences that lie below, in and around ethnicity. Ireland has come a long way since a time when commemorating the Great War or welcoming the British queen would have been unthinkable. Old moulds are being broken. However, there’s a long way to go yet, but it requires changes of principle and policy less than it does recognition of the incontrovertible reality of those current and generations-old mutualities and interdependencies that entwined lives enact daily.
But surely all these Irish in Britain, living, working, sometimes becoming nationally known, are no different from the one million Canadians who live in the United States? (Where Jim Carrey, Pamela Anderson, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Malcolm Gladwell, Matthew Perry, Sandra Oh, Steven Pinker and others have found fame.) And no one is suggesting in Canada’s case that because citizens of a smaller English-speaking country gravitate to the neighbouring English-speaking powerhouse to pursue their career that there are any heavy, much less political implications.
But “Canada and the United States: lives entwined” is bereft of the ironies that attend “Britain and Ireland: lives entwined”. And the ironies speak hitherto unspoken volumes. A million Canadians in the United States are 1/38th of the Canadian population; in 2001, one in every six Irish persons born in Ireland lived in Great Britain. This suggests that the term “migrant” is more accurate than “emigrant” when labelling those who cross the water. Britain is an extension of Ireland ‑ even in some sense a colony of the Irish mind. Why does this provoke embarrassment instead of pride?
Nor over the decades of Canadian emigration to the US was there ever anything comparable between the Canadian view of the US that preceded that emigration and Irish emigrants’ preconceptions of Great Britain. In The Forgotten Irish, Bernard Canavan remarks on the bitter irony in the banishment of boys to Britain (priests in the institutions, he says, would allocate boy pupils to London neighbourhoods: you to Kilburn, you to Cricklewood, you to Camden, and so on). They were being banished to what was regarded as the godless enemy of Ireland. This was surely hypocrisy, or perhaps cognitive dissonance, since Anglophobia was trumped by the brute facts of Irish work-boots stepping onto British soil. More educated Irish emigrants simply crossed the Irish Sea without compunction; they knew better than the nonsense about godlessness and eternal enmity, but unfortunately chose not to speak up.
Furthermore, Canadian emigration to the US involves no political complexity in so far as Canada has no designs on any part of the United States; there is no unfinished constitutional business, no paramilitary campaigns against the US inside its borders. And yet ‑ the Irish keep going to Britain. And they are not turned back at the border; indeed the Common Travel Area means they are treated like returning Britons. This proves that there is a stratum of mutual cultural identity, beneath (or above) the political, a stratum that is thick enough to permit the Irish of all classes to live unmolested in Britain and there flourish (or not) by their own lights. (Though there were, of course, anti-Irish backlashes after bombings, as with the infamous Birmingham bombs, as Sweeney’s documentary recalls.)
Nor is there back in Canada a major political party whose primary purpose is to demonise the United States and seek endless redress and concessions from it. And yet tens of thousands of Irish people defy that party when they choose to live in Britain. So much for the truth or prophylactic power of the demonisation.
So why the silence from both sides of the Irish Sea about Irish relocation to Britain, a silence that encourages the British themselves to keep mum about it? Diarmaid Ferriter writes that that silence was still in force when he left school in 1989, a year in which 70,600 Irish people crossed the water. It is still in force in Britain, and Tony Murray in his April 7th, 2014 Irish Times article, “The Irish in London in Fact and Fiction”, asks: “So, why had Irish writers been so reluctant to represent their own and their compatriots’ experiences of migration to London? Why the reticence? Especially given that they were the oldest and, for a long time, the biggest migrant group in the city? Was it shame, indifference, a plain Irish contrariness?” One answer might lie in Ferriter’s reminder of how when Richard Mulcahy, Fine Gael leader, dared in 1946 to describe the attractions of Britain to Irish citizens, he was accused by Fianna Fáil of being a recruiting sergeant for a foreign country; the topic was to be regarded as nationally infra dig and buried; to discuss it was unpatriotic. (Perhaps the patriotism card was to distract from embarrassment.) That code of silence must persevere in vestigial form among the immigrants in Britain themselves, for I read very little from the successful or contented Irish who are established in Britain about their being successful or contented. Or if they do talk, they don’t seem to be widely reported. That is why the candour of Mary Kenny, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Brendan O’Neill, Conor McGinn MP, Kevin Maher and Tony Murray is refreshing and potentially emancipating.
Could it be also that the story of victimhood, a plank of the Sinn Féin platform, is the captivating Irish narrative (in both senses) woven around the complementary strand that Ferriter calls “a single, heroic nationalist narrative of Irish history”? Is to discuss the empirical fact of Irish contentment or success in Britain to be regarded as denying or subverting that double-stranded narrative? I have always thought (it comes more easily if you live in Northern Ireland) that Sinn Féin is the most powerful shareholder in Republican Ireland. Since the party does not “do” debate, only dogma, and we all know it had an armed wing, the effect on political life in its penumbra is stifling. And, of course, the IRA campaign in Britain naturally caused many Irish there to keep a low profile. And if you were a glaring success it would seem triumphalist overtly to deny the national oppression narrative. Think of the trolling Dara Ó Briain gets from the Twitterati even without his adverting to any narrative but simply for his being happy and thriving in Britain. “It’s always West Brit Season for Irish celebrities working in the United Kingdom,” writes Donald Clarke in a January 12th, 2019 Irish Times article. “All kinds of things can get you called a West Brit these days.” Ó Briain has responded wittily to the begrudgers: “By definition, I’m not a West Brit, because I actually live in Britain. I mean, get your insults straight, please.” How, then, might the deplorable insult be accurately phrased to identify a highly cultivated man born in Ireland, who speaks fluent Irish, supports the GAA, and who is no doubt patriotic, yet who lives and makes his glittering career in Great Britain? A man, moreover, who is, I wager, more comfortable in his own skin than his detractors.
Yet even O’Briain seems to me to be defensive. One must be sensitive to the baggage involved. First-generation Londoner Sean O’Donovan attended the 2014 Irish Writers in London summer school and wrote about it in The Irish Times of June 2nd, 2015. It is a touching exercise in the equivocal. On the one hand, he writes of the London Irish living “abroad”, which strikes an odd geographic note. He writes of the “homeless Irish heart” of what he calls the second-generation Irish. He writes of the London-Irish not wishing to integrate, unlike young Afro-Caribbeans, but instead waging “a fierce battle not to be called British”; he was brought up as an FBI, “Foreign Born Irish with an English accent”. He was christened Michael but his mother had him call himself Seán to others to sound more Irish ‑ her choice of separateness over integration. On the other hand, he says, seemingly with cheerful realism and embryonic pride (the cheer and pride are in his rhythm and rhyme): “We grew up in Holloway, not Galway; played on the fields of Peckham Rye, not the fields of Athenry. The education, the environment, the TV and radio we experienced were all different.” And he has a fond memory of the 2006 summer school when one student in the pub afterwards expressed his Irish patriotism yet “was also very emotionally attached to the English football team who were playing Portugal in the World Cup. It was going badly and he was not happy . . . Tony Murray got everyone in that Irish bar in the heart of Holloway to cheer England on for perhaps the first time.” The tiny addendum that England lost on a penalty shoot-out is the joke one uses to cover up one’s tears. For there is heartache involved. At the core of this article is the question (that itself is an admission) trying to answer itself: “Is it now possible to remain very proud of being Irish but also begin to acknowledge that growing up in England may possibly have had a positive influence on our lives?” This is a step in a journey towards wholeness, it seems to me. There must be many Irish in Britain who love their lives in Britain; if so, it is a love that dare not speak its name. Literally: O’Donovan’s “second-generation Irish” should actually read “first-generation English”.
If I can risk impertinence, I suspect that the defensiveness reflects the weight of a narrative that proscribes the words “English” and “British”. Proscription prevents self-discovery and liberation from someone’s else’s story that is far past its sell-by date. The Daily Telegraph economics columnist, Liam Halligan, is first-generation English from an Irish Catholic family. His defence in the April 20th, 2019 Spectator of his criticism of Leo Varadkar for damaging Anglo-Irish relations by his attitude to Brexit (“It’s not anti-Irish to criticise Leo Varadkar”) is a remarkable piece of writing. It may have economics at its heart, but it is also heartfelt. The taoiseach’s anti-English approach pained Halligan. “As someone who physically embodies the binding blood and cultural ties between Britain and Ireland, I’m regularly attacked in the Irish media for having voted to leave.” He was supposed to revert to ethnic type and oppose Brexit on purely Irish political grounds, not reflect his English upbringing, livelihood and professional economic assessment of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. “The fragility of relations between Britain and Ireland is hard-wired into me,” Halligan writes. “Having grown up ‘London-Irish’ in the 1970s and 1980s, all I ever wanted was for the two countries that define my ethnicity to get on.” O’Donovan’s and Halligan’s stories, yet to be fully told, are in their own way as moving as the stories of lonely Irish navvies.
Why does all this matter, and matter to me? When I say that I believe it healthier for Ireland and the Irish to acknowledge and embrace the Irishness of Britain and the Britishness of Ireland, I am being simultaneously self-serving and altruistic. Altruistic because I have a stake in the welfare of Ireland, having spent a lifetime in Irish Studies, having lived and loved over the years in Dublin, which I like better than I do Belfast, but I cannot see what purpose is served by sequestering (or even denying outright) a huge portion of Irish historical and present reality and the energy and potential for individual and collective fulfilment involved therein. Brexit, alas, and now the coronavirus, have been exploited by some to reverse the amicable potential by the crying up of the differences between the islands. Yet just think of Irish-British relations in the most human, individual and family forms (lives entwined), think of all those living Irish (and dead generations of Irish) in Britain, and the differences diminish.
If I am self-serving, it is because as a Northern Irishman who regards himself as both Irish and irrevocably British, I am offended by the hypocrisy of a political campaign to rescind the Britishness of pro-Union northerners and create a united Ireland while the Republic of Ireland is in denial about its own British dimension, at home and over the water. Let the Republic do its psychic work and unionists will do theirs, which involves accepting their Irish differences from the mainland British. I suspect, in fact, that many Southern Irish would be quite relaxed and even relieved about acknowledging, even celebrating, Britain and Ireland’s intimate relations. I sense that they cannot because a national superego forbids it. But historical and current reality should not be the captive of a political position. Senator Mark Daly wants to convene a New Ireland Forum II in order to dispel unionist fears of the inevitable united Ireland. I suggest he convene instead, in what I regard as a prior task in every sense, a New Ireland Forum to explore the intimate mutual relations between Ireland and Britain, relations which are no threat to Irish patriotism but are the proper starting-point for a search for final peace on these islands. Such a frank audit, with no one afraid of betraying shoneenism, would liberate energies and dynamics heretofore under taboo and embargo. Think of the diversity of occupation, career and talent that could form the panels and interviewees of such a forum!
We have to accept, though, that recent cultural developments have supervened to qualify the hope for candour and vocal optimism about Irish-British relations. Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked, has written about this in one of the most provocative pieces I have yet read on the Irish in Britain: “Bad Immigrants” (September 28th, 2018). Since he lives in England I have to assume that he could provide case studies to illustrate his claims. In any event, as a stimulating contrarian, he is refreshingly devoid of defensiveness, guilt, embarrassment, shame, or equivocation when writing as a first-generation Englishman in England.
During what he calls the second Irish exodus in the second half of the twentieth century (the first was the era of Sweeney’s subjects), O’Neill’s parents left “the unforgiving boglands of the west of Ireland as teenagers in 1968 and arrived in a Swinging London that perplexed them as much as it thrilled them”. Even at that time, Irish immigrants on certain rungs of the social ladder could be regarded as bad immigrants for not fitting in, while being reminded one way or the other that they could never fit in because they were disliked. Yet O’Neil’s parents surmounted all obstacles and never pleaded the poor mouth; they were simply immigrants who wished to succeed. The Irish immigrants of the third wave arrived from the 1980s during an economically bleak period in the Republic, and many of them were different from their predecessors in being highly educated: by 1989, 30 per cent of college graduates left Ireland. These formed the early NIPPLE cohort. Many flourished just as tensions between Ireland and Britain because of the Troubles were easing. “And yet here is the curious thing,” writes O’Neill, “the new promise of accelerated assimilation, the removal of such blocks to assimilation as anti-Catholicism and fear of Irish republicanism, did not lead to a waning of Irish identity, but to the opposite ‑ it coincided with an explosion of new and ever-more self-conscious and separatist expressions of Irish identitarianism in Britain.” Something widespread is at work, including identity politics and the philosophy of multiculturalism. This, says O’Neill, has actively discouraged the Irish, and all the other hyphenated identities in Britain, from integrating in the way, and to the extent, that O’Neill’s parents did. O’Neill sees the active encouragement of difference, the cultivation and institutionalisation of diversity, the discouragement of integration ‑ all at the expense of social cohesion, even coherence ‑ as deplorable, leading to the emergence of “coexisting lifestyles ‑ that is, of communal distinction”. Western European societies “have abandoned the social project of assimilation” (itself now a taboo word) and have created the spectre “of socially sanctioned separateness” where immigrants are encouraged to think of themselves as victimised and hostile to their host nation. In the Irish case, O’Neill alleges, the new sense of separatism has taken on vivid expressions of Irish nationalism as the Irish in Britain have self-racialised during “the new Irish identitarianism” ‑ being anti-British; Gaelicising their names and their children’s names; assuming by historical proxy the status of victim, when they themselves are anything but.
O’Neill’s article was a response to a hostile piece in The Guardian that accused him of being a bad Irish immigrant because, unlike the bad immigrants of the past who wouldn’t integrate, O’Neill wishes to integrate and “wants to feel part of [my host nation], in a real, grown-up way”. The subtitle of his article is “I am Irish but I want to be British ‑ is that bad?” So not only is the former encouragement by the host country to assimilate right-wing, the immigrants’ voluntary wish to assimilate and embrace the values of their adopted home is just as bad, according to those who are not in any shape or form victims, such as Guardian columnists.
If O’Neill is correct about the younger Irish professionals in Britain, then a call for the Irish in Britain to acknowledge the Britishness of their lives, and the Irish in the Republic to acknowledge the British dimension of their own Irish lives, might fall on deaf ears on both sides of the Irish Sea. If so, I cannot see how there can be lasting peace in Ireland. But even so, surely the momentous and oddly unremarked Common Travel Area (allowing free movement to and fro between two countries with a history of tension) remains an incipient centrifugal force for expansion, a possible blueprint and inspiration for a structural expression of British-Irish relations. An ideal polity would reflect intimate Irish-British relations. Deaf ears will not alter one whit the incontrovertible and potent reality of the Irish in Britain and cultural Britain among the Irish.
Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined. Shifting Borders, Shifting Identity, Michael Arlow and Rosemary Bechler (eds), London, British Council, 2019.
The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939, Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds), London, Pinter, 1989.
Paddy & Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History, by RF Foster, London, Allen Lane, 1993.
Beyond the Border: The Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity After Brexit, by Richard Humphreys, Newbridge, Merrion Press, 2018.
The Forgotten Irish, directed by Maurice Sweeney, TV3, 2009.
John Wilson Foster’s most recent book is The Space-Blue Chalcedony: Earth’s Crises and the Tyler Bounty (Seattle, 2020).